The Food Lab: Fresh Ricotta in Five Minutes or Less
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Given that every single food blog has covered the subject at least twice, it's probably no surprise to all you internet-savvy food hounds out there that ricotta cheese is almost stupidly simple to make at home. Basic instructions: heat milk, add acid, drain, enjoy.*
*Before you nitpickers jump on me (which you undoubtedly will, despite this disclaimer), yes, true ricotta is made from leftover whey, not fresh milk. What we are really making here is a paneer or queso-fresco like cheese.
So how do you make something faster and easier when it was already pretty darn fast and easy to begin with? If you are the impatient type (and honestly, if you are intrigued by making fast and easy things faster and easier, then you probably fall into that category), skip to the bottom of the page for the reveal.
But! For those of you who aren't really into the whole brevity thing, and would like a little more detail about the processes involved in curdling milk, read on.
Why, you might ask, would anyone want to make ricotta at home?
This is why:
News Flash! Store-bought ricotta is almost invariably awful.
True ricotta is made by adding acid to heated whey. The combination of heat and acid causes milk proteins (mainly casein) to bind together, trapping in some moisture and fat, and forming soft white curds.
To make really high-quality ricotta, these curds are then carefully removed from the whey (too much mechanical action can turn them rubbery) and allowed to drain, decreasing their water content, and concentrating their flavor and richness. The result is mind-blowingly simple, yet decadent. Or at least it should be.
The reality is that pretty much all mass-market ricotta producers don't bother to take the time to drain their cheese properly. Instead, they load the stuff up with gums and stabilizers intended to keep the water (and thus their profits) from leaking out.
What you get is a gritty, gluey, rubbery paste that breaks as you heat it, turning your lovely cheesecake or lasagna gritty and watery. No thank you.
Homemade ricotta, on the other hand, poses some problems of its own. Despite the fact that the results are invariably better than the store-bought variety, I've had some truly outstanding batches, and some pretty-decent-but-not-great-enough-to-text-message-my-wife-to-come-home-early-for-dinner batches. There's a lot of mixed info out there about the best method to use, so I decided to test each variable, one by one, to separate the curds from the whey.
Most ricotta recipes call for heating the milk to 180°F, the temperature at which it starts to simmer. But is it really necessary to heat it that high?
I tried heating pots of milk to various temperatures (every five degrees between 150°F and 190°F) before adding vinegar as a coagulant and observing the results. Guess what? Between 165°F and 185°F or so, there was no real noticeable differences in the amount of curd produced, nor the texture of the curd.
So where does this particular piece of culinary you-wishdom come from? My first instinct is that it's a carry-over and misapplication from the days when custards were made with un-pasteurized milk. Back then, milk had to be heated to 180°F in order to deactivate certain enzymes that can prevent a custard from setting.
These days, milk is pretty much always pasteurized (heated before packaging) so this step is unnecessary.
But wait a minute! Pasteurized milk is only raised to 161°F and works perfectly well in custards. So that whole 180°F for custards rule must also be a myth.
My best guess as to why many recipes arbitrarily pick 180°F? It's the point at which milk starts simmering: an easy temperature to gauge even without a thermometer. But seeing as we've all got one (you do all have an instant read thermometer, right?) We'll stick with the 165 to 185°F range, instead of aiming for that perfect 180°F.
The Milk and the Curds
I've read reports that UHT (ultra high-temperature) milk—milk that's been heated to 275°F in order to kill all bacteria and spores—does not work for making cheese.
Since pretty much all organic milk is UHT treated (due to the fact that it has to sit on supermarket shelves longer than standard milk), and even the crummiest corner store seems to sell organic milk these days, this one was simple to test.
This time, I'm in agreement: UHT milk does not work as well as regular pasteurized milk. It has a smaller yield, and the curds do not cling together properly. The results weren't terrible, and would do in a pinch, but given the option, I'd choose regular pasteurized milk (if you can get organic non-UHT milk, or even fresh, local milk, then you're in luck).
This was the single most important variable both in terms of flavor and texture.
- Buttermilk has many advocates claiming it's the tastiest acid of choice. I had problems with it. In order to get the milk to curdle properly, I had to add buttermilk at nearly a 1:4 ratio, resulting in a cheese with a very distinct sour flavor. It wasn't bad per se, but the flavor certainly limited its applications: I couldn't imagine stuffing it into a ravioli, for instance. The curd structure was also ever-so-slightly overdeveloped, giving the ricotta a sticky texture.
- Distilled vinegar gave the cleanest flavor, with soft, tender curds. Since bottled vinegar is always diluted to 5% acetic acid, it is also the most consistent method. As long as your milk is fresh (older milk is more acidic than fresh milk, and thus requires less coagulant), you'll get identical results every time.
- Lemon juice also works very well, though I found that in some cases the amount I needed to use varied by about 25% give or take. Most likely this is due to varying pH levels from lemon to lemon. It gives the ricotta a very slight citrus tang that, while not as distinct as the buttermilk flavor, can be slightly off-putting in certain savory applications. On the other hand, it's wonderful for pancakes, blintzes, or feeding to your hard-working wife, drizzled with olive oil**, sprinkled with sea salt, garnished with lemon zest and pesto, off a demi-tasse spoon.
**the ricotta, not the wife
Bottom line? For the most universal ricotta, stick with vinegar. Use lemon juice when lemon flavor is appropriate, and avoid buttermilk unless you're really into it.
In an ideal world, my kitchen would be stocked with butter muslin, or at the very least cheesecloth. Of course, in an ideal world, my kitchen sink have a "veal demi-glace" tap right next to the "hot" and the "cold." Being without either drainage aid, I tried two alternative methods side-by-side: draining in a super fine-mesh chinois, and draining in a strainer lined with two layers of paper towels.
When transferring the curds to the strainer, I discovered that despite the strong temptation to simply dump everything in, it's much more efficient to spoon the curds into the drainage device, trying to minimize the amount of liquid whey you add—the fine curds can gunk up the works, making it a very slow process for all the whey to completely drain.
While the chinois did work quite well, it's also a tool that costs around $90, and is beyond annoying to clean. Paper towels, on the other hand, worked perfectly, and are cheap. As for how long it should drain? Well that all depends on what you're going to do with it:
Drainage Length: Under five minutes.
Texture: Extremely moist and creamy (a cream-cheese-like consistency) with small, tender curds.
Best Uses: Immediate consumption, while still warm. For savory applications, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and black pepper, and serve. For dessert, drizzle warm ricotta with honey, and serve with fruit.
Drainage Length: 15 to 20 minutes.
Texture: Small, tender curds with a cottage cheese-like consistency. Moist and spreadable, but not runny.
Best Uses: Moist savory applications like lasagna or ravioli fillings and dips, or certain un-cooked pastry applications, like cannoli filling.
Drainage Length: At least two hours, or up to overnight (refrigerated).
Texture: Firm, dry, crumbly curds that can easily be molded into firm shapes.
Best Uses: Pastry, such as ricotta pancakes, ricotta gnocchi, or ricotta tortas.
Now, despite the fact that homemade ricotta is about as difficult to make as, say, a boiled egg, there are still two serious issues imost pundits seem to gloss over:
Problem 1: First off, milk burnt onto the bottom of a saucepan is a bitch to clean. There are all sorts of tricks out there to help prevent this, but the fact of the matter is, unless you carefully stir and scrape the bottom with a spatula as the milk heats, you're going to get some degree of burnt milk protein coagulation on the bottom of your pot—a messy affair, to say the least. I rank stirring a slowly heating pot of milk for 20 minutes up there in excitement level with Gilmore Girls marathons and John Mayer concerts.
Problem 2: You think burnt milk on the inside of a pot is bad? How many of you have ever had to clean burnt milk all over your stovetop? Chances are, if you've ever heated milk in your life, this has happened to you. As milk heats, the proteins and fats on the top surface begin to coagulate, forming a sort of "raft" on the surface. Once it starts getting close to its boiling point, water vapor forms, getting trapped underneath this raft. As soon as enough pressure has built up, the raft goes the only way it can: up and over. This tipping point can occur in a matter of moments, and in fact, it has been independently proven by several renowned chefs and scientists that milk will only boil over when your back is turned.
So knowing everything we've learned about ricotta, can we somehow find a method that avoids the chance of a messy spill, makes clean-up a snap, is completely idiot-proof, and a heck of a lot faster to boot? Yep. Just throw out the saucepan and thermometer, combine your ingredients in a glass container, microwave on high for a couple minutes, stir once, and drain. Ta da!
Since we already know that the ricotta has a wide range of tolerance in terms of temperature (anywhere from 165°F to 185°F will do), we don't need the thermometer—simple visual inspection will suffice in this case. Unlike a stovetop, which heats the milk only from the bottom, a microwave heats the milk evenly from all sides, preventing both burnt-on milk proteins, and the chance of a dangerous boil-over.
Finally, since milk is mostly water, and microwaves excel at efficiently heating water, your ricotta is ready in just about a third of the time that it would take on the stove-top.
There you have it: perfect, fresh, homemade ricotta, in five minutes or less. Now if only I could discover a way to get my lasagna to assemble itself, I'd be free to engage in more exciting enterprises like studying the effects of hydrocolloid gelation in the perfect chicken noodle soup.
What do you like to do with your fresh ricotta?
Continue here for the Five Minute Homemade Ricotta Recipe »
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.